Deb: Start and Stuck

“We think before the writing, and afterward. But during the writing, we listen.”
Madeleine L’Engle
Lynn Freed had a problem most writers would die for: upon publication of her second book, her editor and agent were clamoring for the next one.  Not a sequel, her agent insisted, but something new, something fresh.
Freed had nothing.  Well, not exactly nothing.  She had a place, a bungalow she had visited as a schoolgirl in South Africa, overlooking the Indian Ocean.  The place still felt real to her, after all the years that had passed, real in the magical way that writers love.  And she had an idea, that in this bungalow a character would find herself truly at home.
So she began, as she describes in her essay “False Starts” (Writers Workshop in a Book: Squaw Valley Community of Writers on the Art of Fiction) . She set a woman named Anita on the bungalow’s veranda and wrote a few lovely paragraphs describing how she looked out at the sky and the ocean.  Then she came to a dead stop.  She began again, this time after imagining Anita’s mad sister had been banished to the bungalow.  The mad woman proved a distraction – this Freed discovered when her project again stalled.
As Freed aptly puts it, “Fiction has an odd way of both failing the tentative and resisting hot pursuit.” But she had begun, so she pushed on. She ditched the mad woman and returned to Anita on the veranda, wrote a couple of chapters, grew bold enough even to read them at author events. “Dying to know what happens,” kind readers would say to her afterwards.  “So was I,” Freed admits.
No matter how she began, the story stalled. Two years, and she’d written forty pages.  Four years, and the agent and editor stopped asking. 
Forced to write, students spend a lot of time staring at a blank screen or page, complaining they don’t know how to begin.  But real writers know how to begin.  We set out eagerly, finger to keyboard, pen to page. Then all too often, like Freed, we stall.
We stare at the place we got stuck.  What next? What next? What next? We tweak what we’ve written, twist options around in our brains, and still we get nowhere.  Frustration mounts, circling vulture-like with the pressure to produce something, anything, to get past the stuck point.  The project gets canned, shelved, stuck in a drawer unless like Freed we’re too compulsive or stubborn to let go.
But here’s the thing about stuck points: they’re invariably useful when we work through them, or more precisely, when they force us back to the beginning, not to tweak it but to pull up and out of the stall by forcing the issue of why we started the blasted thing in the first place, because what prompts us to start a story or poem can with irksome fickleness lead us astray. Yet if we dig through and under and around our starting point, be it a place or a voice or a character or an idea, if we allow for the messy mushing together of experience and imagination – composting, Ursula LeGuin calls its – we will find our way through, sometimes at the place we got stuck but more often back at the beginning.
Freed eventually landed at the Bellagio Study Centre in Italy.  Five weeks to write, to work on “a book of fiction,” which was all she could at that point say confidently about her project.  A little mix-up: her computer wouldn’t be available for two weeks.  So she started all over. Completely. She got out her notebook and wrote “Untitled” at the top of the page.  Then, she says, “I had to lie down and sleep for the rest of the day.”
Whether it was the paper and pen or the time that had passed or the easing of external pressure to produce this particular book, the story broke loose.  It turned out to be a sequel after all, Ruth Frank from Freed’s previous book, with a lost cause of a lover and a father she thought had died but hadn’t, a story about place and displacement. The Bungalow ended up a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, beginning not with a woman or a verandah but a victim of murder.
My students hear this often: Writing is a recursive process of discovery.  Stuck points shove us back to where we began. They force us outside the circle to consider how we got there and why. They push us up and out, to try something new.  Posing as failure, stuck points offer hope.
And may we all be as candid as Lynn Freed in sharing our failures, which when we’re writing invariably accumulate faster than our successes.
Try This:  Stuck or not, return to your beginning.  Rewrite it completely, with a place or a scene or a character you hadn’t envisioned.  The idea isn’t to make use of this reworked start (though you might), but rather to see how it illuminates your project.
Check This Out: Writers Workshop in a Book: Squaw ValleyCommunity of Writers on the Art of Fiction, edited by Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez .  This collection of faculty essays convinced me to apply for Squaw Valley, one of the most helpful and delightful weeks I’ve ever spent as a writer.  As Richard Ford says in his introduction to the book, at Squaw they put wonder on display. What better way to teach writing?

Deb cross-posts at

3 thoughts on “Deb: Start and Stuck”

  1. Great post, great advice, and gave me the first laugh of the day:

    So she started all over. Completely. She got out her notebook and wrote “Untitled” at the top of the page. Then, she says, “I had to lie down and sleep for the rest of the day.”


  2. How perfectly timed, since I have the next two months in residency, ostensibly to work on a novel which I have been "working on" for years and which will not give way. I'd be lucky for 40 pages! Thanks for the reminder to both persist and let go.

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